If you affectionately recall Jeffrey Blitz’s 2002 National Spelling Bee documentary “Spellbound,” you will probably have a good time at the equally engrossing “Science Fair,” the film by Cristina Costantini and Darren Foster that follows a group of high school students as they vie to compete in the 2017 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in Los Angeles, and then to win a prize there, perhaps the coveted “Best in Fair.”
After a prologue in which an ebullient Jack Andraka recalls his winning of the top prize as a high school freshman some years earlier, the film turns to profiling the efforts of a number of individual competitors and teams in 2017. Most are American, four from DuPont Manual high school in Louisville, Kentucky: Anjali Chadha is a hard-driving young lady working on a technique for detecting arsenic in water, and the trio of Ryan Folz, Harsha Paladugu and Abraham Riedel-Mishann is collaborating in developing a device to be used in cardiac diagnosis. Jericho High in New York is represented by Kendra Zhang, but the film’s emphasis is on teacher Serena McCalla, who, it seems, devotes her entire life to her job and places a number of students in the competition.
By contrast we have Robbie Barrat, a long-haired West Virginia kid with a penchant for loud shirts, whose high school record was spotty at best but whose number theory project won the state science fair and a trip to Los Angeles; even his parents and teachers can’t explain his non-traditional route to success. Perhaps even more remarkable a case is offered by Kashfia Rahman, a shy Muslim student in Brookings, South Dakota, who must even cajole a coach into being her sponsor for a project on the effect of risky behavior on brain development in adolescents.
Then there are foreign students: Ivo Zell, a gangly German boy working on a new design single-wing airplane, and the team of Myllena Braz de Silva and Gabriel de Moura Martins, from a small, impoverished Brazilian town, who research a protein that might be capable of obstructing the zika virus in humans.
The fiim is simply structured. The first segment covers the various students’ experiences as they prepare for their local competitions and, if they win at that level, proceed to join the throng in Los Angeles. There are setbacks along the way—as when the Kentucky trio faces a rules challenge just before the California judging is scheduled to start. But the awards are eventually announced, and of the students the film has followed, some win major awards while others go home empty-handed—except, of course, for the experience itself, and for the incentive to continue with their work it instills in them.
Most importantly, the film allows us to get to know the students as individuals and appreciate them as such. There’s a great difference, for example, between Barrat’s genial devotion to projects that simply pique his interest, Chadha’s very practical ambition, and the need Braz de Silva and de Moura Martins have to help solve a medical problem of which their corner of the world is the epicenter. But while they choose projects that they hope will benefit society, their motivation isn’t simply altruistic: these are all highly competitive youngsters who want to win, and drive themselves to do so. It’s similar with McCalla. She’s an extraordinary teacher who has given up a great deal to devote to her students, but she too is driven by an intense desire to see them triumph.
One doesn’t know how much footage Costantini and Foster (and their cameraman Peter Alton) shot for “Science Fair,” or how many students they initially concentrated on. But they are certainly fortunate in the final cut edited by Tom Maroney and Alejandro Valdes-Rochin, since the youngsters included are so personable—and different from one another. And they make certain to include footage that shows them cutting loose a bit, in a big dance in Los Angeles for example, although the moves of these study-obsessed kids might not always be the epitome of cool.
Nor does “Science Fair” quite match the excitement of “Spellbound”—the staid process of the competition doesn’t allow for that (nor, it appears, were the cameras allowed to capture the actual judging). It’s also the case that while the casual observer can appreciate the ability to spell a long, obscure word, it’s hard to get one’s brain around the projects undertaken by students at this level. (At one point, a kid tells us in highly technical terms what his research is about before adding, “Can I explain?” The camera cuts away quickly.)
But one point made by the film in unassailable—the lack of respect for science and science education that exists, and seems to have grown recently, in this country. It’s brought home especially in the case of Rahman, whose accomplishments are overlooked in her school both before and after the competition, even though the campus administration goes to great lengths to publicize even its loss-prone sports teams. (A couple of players interviewed in the locker room are amazed when they they’re told about her.) If “Science Fair” does even a little to increase national appreciation of students so devoted to studies at so high a level, even if viewers can’t entirely understand what their research is about, it will have performed a meaningful service.